I highly recommend this website and podcast for those who grow or wish to grow their own food in the UK. The Alternative Kitchen Garden is a production of gardening book authoress Emma Cooper and has a presence on Facebook and Twitter as well as lots of links to other great sites, including my other site Sustainable Living.
Using social research methods, including questionnaire, interview, and observation, four neighbourhoods in SW Sheffield were assessed to determine what factors are most likely to promote and support home- based food-growing. 68 questionnaires and 29 interviews were analysed. Each household interviewed was assessed for growing potential by measuring land area available, land area in food cultivation, solar resource, and availability of tools.
The hypotheses that emerged was that the group of people studied who grow food do not generally do so because they are concerned about food supply or to save money. They grow food primarily because they enjoy gardening, find it therapeutic and they want the freshest produce. They would appreciate access to more land to grow on but very few are interested in an allotment due to lack of proximity and time to adequately utilise one. Those who grow the most food are likely to have a university degree and be aware of threats to food security from peak oil and climate change. The most highly valued source of advice and training across the group are family members and other gardeners. Having a high level of personal community involvement and living within a neighbourhood that is active not only in growing but also socially is a key factor in the likelihood and/or the desire to grow food. The most successful growers live near and interact with other successful growers. Those who do not grow list lack of land and time as the primary reason, but the chances of growing are higher in neighbourhoods with more community involvement regardless of other factors.
Research was done on Sheffield city topsoils in 2005.
“A model of soil variability ... was applied to 569 measurements of metal concentrations ... in the topsoils of Sheffield ... Each of the 35 spatial outliers that occurred in gardens have concentrations exceeding their Soil Guideline Value for residential land use with plant uptake, highlighting a potentially significant exposure pathway. ... coal and furnace waste at these sites suggests that their dispersal ... represents a significant point contaminant process. ... Cr and Ni showed a significant association with disturbed sites ... in part due to their prevalence in areas of historical steel manufacture. ... Pb concentrations in urban topsoil ... were twice the value in the rural environment ... highlighting a very substantial diffuse Pb load to urban soils.” (Rawlins et al. 2005 p.353)
Sheffield has centuries of mining activity and steel works that has impacted the soil quality both through direct dumping of waste and airborne deposition of contaminants. According to Richard Clare, “In the ‘70s in Sheffield due to industrial pollution, there was a public health recommendation not to grow food anywhere in the city.” (Worthington 2008)
Complicating the situation is the difficulty in getting reliable recommendations from soil testing. While there are laboratories to get contamination testing done,
“There are no widely available reference materials for bioaccessibility testing validated against human or appropriate animal in-vivo studies. ... For lead, comparing in vitro data with human in vivo data indicated that the in vitro methods used by most of the laboratories in England and Wales underestimate bioaccessibility. ... This is clearly a matter of concern if such test results are used to make decisions within the risk management of land contamination." (Barnes et al. 2007 p.67)
Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires “... a science based risk assessment which takes account of toxicological information, and site specific ... circumstances” to determine if significant possibility of significant harm (SPOSH) exists. The Act also “requires that local authorities identify contaminated land and ensure that significant risks are dealt with.” (Defra 2008 p.3) DEFRA published a software tool, the Contaminated Land Exposure Assessment (CLEA), to assist local authorities with this. The Act establishes to what degree remediation must occur primarily through a link to planning and development requirements. The guidance provided by DEFRA is intended to assist local authorities, not the individual, with implementation of the Act. (Defra 2008 p.3) By leaving assessment of contamination primarily up to the planning process, are backyard gardens and existing allotment sites being overlooked? How does the homeowner or allotment holder gain access to CLEA tool for assessment of exposure on allotment sites? (COT 2008 p.1) My queries to the council to determine the extent of compliance have received no reply.
Research done by Dr. Rule, professor of biogeochemistry Loyola University, indicates that, “Most soil contaminants will bind tightly to the soil particles and will move very slowly to the soil below.” (Rule 2008)
With the increasing interest in urban agriculture in Sheffield, are more of its’ citizens being exposed to existing, unmeasured, contamination of the soils?
“... vegetables, particularly leafy crops, grown in heavy metals contaminated soils have higher concentrations of heavy metals than those grown in uncontaminated soil. (Guttormsen et al. 1995; Dowdy and Larson 1995) A major pathway of soil contamination is through atmospheric deposition of heavy metals from point sources such as: metaliferous mining, smelting and industrial activities. ... foliar uptake of atmospheric heavy metals emissions has also been identified as an important pathway of heavy metal contamination in vegetable crops. (Bassuk 1986; Salim et al. 1992)” (Kachenko and Singh 2004 p.1)
Given the lack of guidance for the individual citizen regarding the risks of food-growing in the city from soil contamination, as well as the evidence that there could very well be significant contamination, it seems prudent to apply the precautionary principle and assume that soils within Sheffield are guilty until proven innocent.
Those who I talked to in depth about allotments expressed great concern about the council’s lack of commitment to adequate, fair, and supportive management of the allotments in existence, and dismay that so few are provided. The relationship between highly committed and experienced growers and the management has been quite dysfunctional at times and has hindered the positive development of the allotments in the Sheffield area. There have been many disputes with the chronically understaffed Allotments Department.
In my opinion, allotments are the heart and soul of urban agriculture in the UK. They have provided large quantities of food in hard times and are highly valued by those who are committed to them. They are also valuable centers of learning and gardening culture. Allotments have the potential to and indeed are already providing vital services to home-based food growers, from composting to seed swapping. Some home-based growers have an allotment and have developed methods of interaction between the two. Most use their home planting to bring on seedlings. Most do their composting on the allotment and bring it back home, though different forms of composting sometimes take place on the two sites.
Allotments have been the center of community supported agriculture projects, educational efforts, and a lifeline for disadvantaged, disabled, and/ or disturbed individuals who have been lucky enough to find their way onto a site. “In the most recent survey of allotment provision in Sheffield, 75% of tenants defined themselves as either disabled or disadvantaged.” (Clare 2009) In Sheffield several successful examples of these types of projects exist.
Before you can grow food you need good soil, I suggest you build your own. First you need some good organic compost. Here are some links and videos to get you started turning your kitchen waste into quality organic compost.
There have been several initiatives by private citizens and community groups over the years to organise composting on a community scale. At one point funding was provided to set up an anaerobic composting system for Sheffield, but when the funding ended so did the project. Unfortunately, the council’s efforts in composting are meager: a small green bin programme, with no provision for the return of composted material, and reduced price composters is the extent of it. Many suspect that the waste contract with the Veolia incinerator is at the root of the problem.
There is a small amount of compost for sale through the City Farm, certainly not enough to supply a serious expansion of home-based food-growing. Several of my cohort mentioned being frustrated by the lack of dependable supply there. This leaves individuals to source compost at B&Q or other garden centers or to make their own. The composters available through the council contract with Veolia at a reduced rate are currently the best option as they solve two problems at once, reducing the waste stream and producing high quality soil improvement. The units are reasonably space efficient, but people need training in their use.
Other councils in the area also have not learned how to deal with composting.
“One sustainability official … had recently consulted with Bradford Planning about the potential for developing a localized ‘community’ composting system using the council’s park waste as one waste source. He was told that Composting was an industrial activity that would have to occur in the industrial part of the city. He commented that this made a mockery of the now widely embraced planning principle of mixed uses.” (Howe 2002)
Compost is a challenge on the individual level as well. Interviewee #6 said,
“I don’t have a car to get compost. That was why I got a composter; every day I throw away vegetable peelings. It got mushy at the bottom over winter but the stuff at the top had only been in there a couple of days.”
She gave up on it and mentioned that having free compost delivery would be a huge help. She had taken a bus to B&Q to have a bag of compost delivered which cost more than the bag of compost.
I am married, have no kids, a long distance walker, a climber of moderate terrain, a warm water surfer. I'm currently pursuing an MSC in advanced environmental studies and energy. I've lived off grid on a small sailboat in Bermuda. I've been a teacher, a theatre technician, a carpenter, a drifter. My wife and I are planning a move back to the states with the intent of once again going off grid, pursuing a permaculture based lifestyle and developing a community education program about the process.